One of my favourite was always the description of a person as "tired and emotional" to indicate that he/she was drunk at the time of an incident, but the paper or station didn't want to be sued. This was very popular in British papers for a number of years. The use of this phrase had a problem in that it made it difficult to describe a person who was physically tired, and in a rather "emotional" mood, but cold sober nevertheless.
Newspaper obituaries - particularly obituaries in the English "quality" papers and in top-end papers elsewhere such as the New York Times, the Melbourne Age, the Irish Times, the Scotsman, and Ha'aretz - have some great eupehemisms to describe the deceased. For example:
- Describing the deceased as a "confirmed bachelor" means he was gay, but not technically out of the closet, even if everyone knew anyway.
- Describing the deceased as "the life of the party" meant he was an alcoholic (but a friendly one).
- A "bon vivant" was a friendly alcoholic who could also eat his hosts out of house and home.
- A person "of strong opinions" was a bigot.
- A "gentleman/lady of the old school" was a bigot who nevertheless had good table manners, liked opera, studied Latin in high school, and (if male) could tie a bow tie.
- A person who "didn't suffer fools gladly" was a bully.
- A "ladies man" couldn't name every woman he ever slept with.
- A "man's man" drank like a journalist, swore like a cop, smoked like a 1970s cabdriver, and farted like a Labrador.
Basically, the concept has expanded beyond a person's link (whether actual or supposed) to the Mob. Sometimes, it's just used ironically, as a general taking of the mickey, (1) as is the case in the rest of this blogpost.
How can we refer to some prominent individuals as "colourful identities" (2) today?
Here are some of my suggestions.
Professor Richard Dawkins, the man who has almost single-handled proved the case that "you don't have to be religious to be a fundamentalist" can be described as a "colourful Oxford scientific identity". This will help to distinguish him from that "colourful Cambridge scientific identity", Professor Stephen Hawking.
Cardinal George Pell, for many decades the voice of the conservative wing of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia (3), has progressed from being a "colourful Ballarat religious identity", through being a "colourful Melbourne religious identity" and a "colourful Sydney religious identity", to his current status as a "colourful Vatican City financial identity".
To get a bit more locally Tasmanian, David Walsh, the founder of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which I have been sometimes known to call the "Museum of Pretentious Art" (4), can be called a "colourful Berriedale arts identity".
And then there's Donald Trump. I'm not sure whether to call him a "colourful Atlantic City gaming identity" or a "colourful New York reality television identity". One thing, though, if we start calling him a "colourful Washington political identity", we're all in trouble.
(1) For example, on my FarceBook and LinkedIn profiles, I refer to myself as a "colourful Hobart religious identity".
(2) On a recent episode of the Australian TV comedy-drama series Rake, the comment was made, by a criminal lawyer at a party, that "the place is full of colourful identities", which may indicate that the phrase may be beginning to be used without the geographical and occupational descriptions to refer to a generally dodgy individual.
(3) Many priests and nuns I know have given the Cardinal the nickname "Pell Pot".
(4) The "Museum of Pretentious Art" (a.k.a. MONA) is located on the shores of the Derwent River, in the People's Democratic Republic of Glenorchy, the local government area just north of Ye Olde Hobart Towne.